This time is different, and comparisons to Ben Hogan’s improbable return fail to recognize reality with Woods: He’s older, less capable
The entire golf world, almost to a person, has reacted with prayers, well wishes and unparalleled support for Tiger Woods, who remained hospitalized in Los Angeles after a horrific single-car crash last week. On Sunday, at the WGC Workday Championship, players wore red and black, Woods’ signature final-round colors, in a touching tribute.
We want to be careful not to show anything less than reverence for his place in the game and in society and gratitude that the crash didn’t have a worse outcome. But sooner or later, we will face, even with trepidation, Woods’ future in golf at the highest level.
We can’t pretend the wondering doesn’t exist. It’s the question everyone is asking in whispered conversations with one another in the accident’s aftermath: Is Tiger done?
Let’s start with this: Woods won the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines on a broken leg. That’s a fact entered into evidence. Many thought his career was over after spinal-fusion surgery, the fourth and most serious of his back surgeries, in 2017. But two years later, he won the Masters.
He has overcome swing changes, back pain, chipping yips, knee surgeries, personal scandal, a reckless-driving plea and prescription-drug addiction. Maybe he didn’t return to the top of the game each time, but lesser people might have folded the hand they were dealt. Woods is sport’s ultimate phoenix, rising seemingly countless times from the ashes to become a formidable presence in his game again.
One of his enduring traits, which is why he won many of his 82 PGA Tour titles, including 15 major championships, is that he never gives up. That’s why players and doctors alike have gone out of their way to say, Don’t count him out.
But here are a couple of more facts in evidence: Woods’ right ankle was shattered in the Feb. 23 crash and was re-assembled with pins and rods. His right lower leg was severely broken in multiple places and put back together with more hardware. The recovery and rehab just to be able to walk normally again is liable to be excruciating and lengthy, according to doctors.
Then, there’s his back, which underwent its fifth surgery just about two months ago. No one has said whether his back was injured further, which is another huge question mark.
Even if he beats seemingly insurmountable odds and recovers to the point at which he could play golf again, how much could he realistically compete? Even before the crash, his back was preventing him from playing more than 10 tournaments a year. In the 2019-20 PGA Tour season, he played in only seven tournaments plus the Hero World Challenge and the Presidents Cup. He competed in only three tournaments this season, including the Masters and the U.S. Open, and had yet to compete in 2021.
One last fact in evidence: he’s 45 years old. And his body, which has been kept intact through medical science, was much older than that and more fragile, even before the crash. Add these severe injuries, and his rehab will be increasingly uphill.
Some want to compare this to the crash that Ben Hogan survived in 1949. His car was hit head-on by a bus, and he dove across the front seat to protect his wife, Valerie, who was in the passenger side. Hogan remarkably recovered and went on to win five more major championships. But Hogan was 36 at the time, and even at that, he played in the majors and little else because his legs just wouldn’t allow it.
The sad reality is that we should prepare ourselves for the distinct possibility that this time, Woods might not make it back, that the odds are too great, the injuries too debilitating. PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan said it was too early to consider the game without Woods. But we’re only saying out loud what most everyone is thinking.
Golf would be hauntingly empty for what would seem like an endless time if Woods can’t return to something more than ceremonial. The big tournaments would seem a lot smaller without Woods competing for the title, or even in the field for four days.
While the game has plenty of young stars, which speaks highly of where golf is at the moment, their combined candlepower doesn’t add up to a fraction of the brightness of Woods’ star, even years after his prime.
It can’t be said enough that Woods is a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon, and his equal is not likely to appear for generations, maybe ever. Every PGA Tour player owes him a debt of gratitude that the game is big and rich, and Woods is the reason.
His longtime friend Notah Begay said Woods doesn’t want his career to end this way. Every player and millions of fans share that sentiment, and all are holding out everlasting hope for yet another encore. It’s heartaching to think that Tiger Woods might have played his last song.
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